The Sherpa, the Smuggler and Me on Chhukung Ri

I left Dingboche quite early and discovered that Chhukung was much closer than I had thought. I checked into a guesthouse there at about 9AM and after a quick breakfast decided to try and find the trail that lead to Lobuche over the Kongma La, a 5535 meter pass that I would attempt the following day. I picked up the trail quite quickly, but continued past it and started hiking up Chhukung Ri. Before I knew it I got to a large plateau above town and stumbled across a flock of ptarmigan like birds that I later learned were called Tibetan snowcocks. From there I saw a major trail leading out from town with several hikers struggling along it. I headed that way and eventually made it to the top of the ridge where the trail split into two, one heading to a low summit, the other heading to the higher, jagged peak of Chhukung Ri. I chose the latter, and after a somewhat sketchy climb/hike I made it right to the top. The peak was at the base of Nuptse, part of the Everest massif, and as you might expect the views were spectacular. From that vantage point I was afforded 360 degree views of the valley out over some of the most unique looking glaciers and landscapes I’ve ever seen. I could even see Imja Tsho, a milky green glacier lake at the end of the valley. Because of climate change the lake is considered to be one of the most dangerous in Nepal, and indeed earlier that morning I had met a couple of researchers from an American university who were on their way back from a research trip investigating it. The lake is formed by a glacial moraine that basically acts as a natural dam. As more and more of the surrounding glaciers melt, a lot of the water ends up in Imja Tsho. The water level is increasing at an accelerating rate, and as you can see from the picture it is nearly full to the top of its banks. The consensus is that in the future it will burst its dam, especially in the event of an earthquake, unleashing a torrent of floodwater that will wipe out a number of towns downstream, including Chhukung and Dingboche. Dangerous lakes like this are actually quite common in the Himalayas.

Almost as interesting as the surrounding valley were the two older guys already sitting at the summit. One was a 63 year old American named Steve, the other a similarly aged Sherpa named Menjo Tenzig that turned out to be a relative of Tenzig Norquay, the first to climb Mount Everest. I sat and chatted with them for quite a while and they informed me that Chhukung Ri, where we were sitting, is 5550 meters above sea level, the highest I have ever been. Then they went on a whirlwind description of all the surrounding mountains, most of which Menjo had climbed. He was adamant that Chhukung Ri has the second best views in the entire Everest region without actually summiting one of the big mountains. Steve had quite a colorful history as well. It turned out that he has been coming to Nepal for about 40 years and been friends with Menjo for almost as long. When I asked what he did for a living I was surprised to hear a long list of different professions including cook, waiter, journalist, photographer, writer, drug dealer, and smuggler. All in all it was an interesting day.

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